I thought that I’d talk a bit about how I work and the steps involved in BIY from field to skein – so that if you ever pick up a skein you know just what has gone into it.

Fearniewell Croft

The first stage is to make contact and build a relationship with a farm or smallholding that has a sheep breed I am interested in, and whose land managament and animal welfare meets a high standard.  I’m now working with around 12 local farms and have found them in a variety of ways.  My very first contact (in late 2015 in advance of summer 2016’s clip) was Fearniewell Croft, a local smallholding which operates mostly as an organic veg grower – and since I buy my delicious veg box from Dan and Rachel it made sense to contact them and ask if they would be interested in me buying fleeces from their small Gotland(ish) flock.  The next fleeces came from Jim and Linda’s Hedgefield Zwartbles – Jim had done some work with my husband, and Jim and I then realised we had been forestry colleagues in Aberdeenshire in the 1990s.  Since then contacts have been made through active searching (such as finding Meadows Flock for my first Shetland fleeces) and word of mouth, with farmers contacting me to see if I’d be interested in buying their wool.  Perhaps my favourite find is Coulmore – my friend Emily bumped into this special organic cheviot flock when she was out on a bike ride!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be contacting each of the farms to get a feel for when they’re likely to be clipping and I’ll then maintain contact until shearing actually happens – in an ideal world I’d visit on shearing day but this often turns out to be quite tricky.  Clipping dates are often decided at the last moment, worked around weather and other farm and work duties, and as I have to work around my family and access to our car it often isn’t possible to visit until afterwards.

When I visit each farm I’ll have in mind the numbers and colours (if theyr’e Shetland) of fleeces I’m aiming to select.  But if there’s lots of great quality that number tends to slip upwards, and likewise I won’t buy fleeces which aren’t good enough quality.  I tend to do a bit of skirting at that stage – I can’t help pulling off daggy and coarse bits as I’m handling a fleece (ingrained, I think, from rolling fleeces as a child!) – but each fleece will be properly skirted back at home.  Ideally I’ll do it the same day but often I don’t manage and then I’ll have a mammoth sorting session and clean-up several lots at once.  Once they’re skirted I’ll weigh the fleeces so that I have a running total of each breed and colour.  I really ought to build myself a sorting table, at the moment I crawl around on the ground in our back garden, or occasionally at the front – which I suspect must bemuse (and amuse) some of my neighbours!  Discarded fleece goes around my soft fruit as a mulch and fertiliser, and any excess goes off to a local orchard for a similar end use.

Fearniewell Croft

Having selected, bought and sorted each batch of fleeces they’ll head off to the mill.  Fleeces that go to The Border Mill will have a pre-booked slot (I have several booked per year) and I’ll take a car-load of fleece when I go to visit family in East Lothian, which is just a short drive from Duns where TBM is based. To date the other mill I have used is The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall so it is more efficient environmentally for fleeces to be sent to them by courier service.  I work closely with the mills to work out a spin plan for each batch – I’ll have my own thoughts but it is always good to make the most of their expertise and advice.

The spun yarn comes back to me on cones and the first step is to skein the yarn – I place the cone on electronic scales while I hand wind onto my skein winder.  I’m much faster now than I was initially but it is still time consuming!  At this stage an undyed skein just needs the appropriate label filling in from my online template, then printing off, cutting to size and attaching round the twisted skein.  I always include the sheep breed, farm(s) the fleece came from, and clipping year – as well as m/100g – on the label.

35g mini skeins (73 in total!) ready for dyeing before Edinburgh Yarn Festival
A special one-off yarn from Coulmore, still on the cone which will be in the next shop update

After winding, a dyed skein goes through several stages.  The first step is to thoroughly scour the skeins to clean them.  I’ll scour several at a time by bringing them up to 70-80 degrees for an hour or so in tap water with a little pH netural dishwashing soap.  If they’re to be dyed with indigo or a dye material which is ‘substantive’ (i.e. a dye that is applied directly without a mordant) they’re now ready to be dyed after being rinsed.  As an example I don’t mordant if I’m dyeing with gallnut.  Often though the next step is to mordant the skeins (with a naturally occuring salt – ‘alum’ or potassium aluminium sulphate dodecahydrate) which helps fix the dye to the fibre and increases light, water and wash fastness.

Bramble leaves, gallnuts and alder cones

I like to collect as much dye material locally as I can and this includes bramble leaves, heather tops, fallen tree lichen, alder cones and beech mast (and this year I want to try hawthorn twigs and leaves amongst others).  Unfortunately though I’d struggle to get a good range of colour without the addition of bought dye material which I buy from respected traceable sources. The exact dye process varies dependent on the dye material but usually involves heat and then soaking for at least several hours.  Often I’ll overdye to create more complex shades or add more than one dye material at a time – and if I’m experimanting I’ll keep adding until I’m happy (or otherwise!) with the shade I have achieved. 

The final step, after several rinses and air drying, is to twist and label each skein………although for a 4 ply yarn I will reskein each of the skeins, once they are dry, before twisting and labelling.  This is my least favourite step as it is time consuming and fiddly, but I find that 4ply can get quite tangled during dyeing and I’d much rather it got to you without any tangles.

A {not quite} rainbow of mini skeins

For yarn that I list online there’s a a final few steps – photographing, editing (to ensure the colour is accurate) and listing each shade and yarn into the shop database.

And there you have it!  I hope that was an interesting insight into what I get up to and what makes each skein of BIY.  If you have any questions please do ask.

I had a custom order before Christmas for a yarn set to knit the Indigo Sea Shawl by Carrie Bostick Hoge – it is a lovely shawl which uses 50g each of three shades of 4ply.  I dyed the set in heathery shades on Bluefaced Leicester Suri Alpaca 4 ply, over the Natural Silver shade (naturally dyed with logwood, lac and iron). While I was dyeing the order I created another 3 x 50g set (165m/50g x 3 =  495m/150m) and several 5 x 50g sets (165m/50g x 5 = 825m/250g) which fully exhausted the dye bath.

The three shade set would make a lovely Indigo Sea Shawl as per the original custom order, and there will be many other options I’m sure.  For the five shade sets I had a quick search on Ravelry and found some really stunning designs that I think would work well (this is just a tiny snippet, have a look here for more ideas) ……..

Designs, clockwise from top left – Winterlight by Meg Gadsbey, Miso by Ambah O’Brien, Indigo Sea Shawl by Carrie Bostick Hoge, Honey Honey Honey by Lisa Hannan, ADVENTurer Scarf & Wrap by Ambah O’Brien, Bark Lines by Joji Locatelli and Colourblind by Jana Huck (all design photos by designer)

Of course, it would also be possible to combine one of these sets with a full 100g skein or two of BFL Suri in Natural Cream or Silver for a beautiful light-weight drapey colourwork or striped cardigan or jumper.

Once again I am delighted to be joining in with Project Peace, Christina Campbell’s (aka The Healthy Knitter) annual worldwide Knit Along to promote peaceful mindful knitting during the hectic holiday season.  Christina already has almost 1000 people joining in so far this year – from all around the world…..ready to knit the beautiful Project Peace cowl and ‘spread seeds of peace’ by knitting together.  One or two skeins will knit either version of the cowl.  I will donate 10% of all BFL Suri Blend, sold in December, to Unicef and I will pop a peaceful little ‘something extra’ into each package too.  In addition, Christina will donate all pattern proceeds to charity.

The best place to find out more about this wonderful initiative is to visit Christina’s website. But, in summary, this is a way to join knitters around the world and to ‘promote peace for self, family, community, the people of our world and this beautiful planet’. Christina posts a blog daily with little ‘seeds’ helping us to think and reflect – last year I found them lovely calm little points in each day, just perfect to quietly absorb for a few moments during this very busy time of year.

 

I will add a special new dye shade ‘Sea Breeze’ , just for Project Peace, in BFL Suri to the shop over the weekend of 1/2 December – hopefully Saturday 1st December in the evening.  It will be a tonal indigo blue, similar to the shade I am knitting my version in……but completely unique just for Project Peace! In the meantime there are lots of lovely dyed and undyed (natural cream and silver) skeins in the shop at the moment.

*As of 29 November, I haven’t yet finished my version of the cowl (which Christina kindly released early for me to begin testing yarn suitability) so I can’t be certain I’ll complete the whole cowl with one skein – it may be a little close, but the pattern is very forgiving and easy to adapt – the final repeat can easily be missed out if yarn looks to be running low.  Or you could choose two skeins to knit the larger version of the cowl.  All the pattern details are available when you buy the pattern and the full knitting instructions are released on 1 December.

 

 

Rockpool – dyed with indigo and bramble leaves

I realise that I haven’t talked all that much about natural dyeing – I think that, as it is something I do on a regular basis (rather than new patterns and yarns which are more of an ‘event’), I don’t tend to share what I have been up to.  I thought I’d share part of an interview that I did for Clare Devine’s blog (thank you Clare!)…………..

Seaweed – dyed with indigo and bramble leaves

”Clare: Your yarns are naturally dyed. Could you tell me a little more about why you decided to use natural dyes and what inspires your colour choices.

Me: It was actually natural dyes which drew me into setting up Black Isle Yarns. I began with natural dyeing for my own use – collecting plant material while out on walks and experimenting with colour for fun. I very quickly began to feel that I wanted to know where the yarn I was dyeing came from and, having grown up on a smallholding and having a lifelong love of farming and land management, I knew there would be a lot of wool locally which was fetching little to no money for the farmer. I sounded out a couple of local flock owners who I already knew and began searching for a mill to use. I was incredibly lucky to start with The Border Mill, they are great to work with and always prepared to try new ideas.

Ginger dyed with annato, quebracho red, rhubarb, cutch and sorghum

I was originally drawn to dyeing with natural materials because of my love of plants and the outdoors – there is something incredibly satisfying in creating colour with material gathered while out walking. Perhaps because of my background, I tend to have a map in my head of the plants in my local area and when they are likely to be coming into leaf or flower. I love spotting something new on a familiar walking route and storing it’s location away for future reference. I think these same walks inspire my colour choices. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a very beautiful part of the world. The Black Isle is a unique part of the Scottish Highlands, a little peninsula surrounded by sea. From home I can walk down to the beach and along the shore to caves and cliffs, or inland through fields and up into the hills and woods that make up the top of the Black Isle. Colours here are often slightly muted with beautiful shades and tones, and I think these are definitely reflected in the colours I dye. Over time, and as I build expertise (natural dyeing is such an artform, I will always be learning), I would like to work towards a set of deeper more saturated shades which would reflect the more bold colours we have when it is cold and clear after a good fall of snow.

Culloden dyed with lac and hibiscus

Curiosity dyed with sorghum and Pearl dyed with gallnut

I’m so very pleased to share with you the Munlochy Socks, designed for Killen Sock (you can read more about Killen Sock, my all-natural sock yarn, here) by the very talented Clare Devine. When I first started planning Killen Sock , over 18 months ago now, I knew that I’d ideally like a pattern designed by Clare. She is a very experienced sock designer with a beautiful, subtle aesthetic which I love – and she champions the use of no-nylon, all-natural sock yarn.  There’s some great information, about knitting with and wearing no-nylon sock yarn, on her website: here and here. I was quite nervous about asking Clare and so delighted when she said yes!

Clare has designed ‘cosy socks which are perfect winter warmers – they are warm and will wear beautifully. The simple cable wave undulates over the garter stitch panels creating a gorgeous texture.’

If you design a pair of Munlochy Socks in Killen I’d love to see the finished socks – and would be very grateful for any feedback on my new yarn.

I’m incredibly pleased to be able to tell you about Killen my brand new all-natural sock yarn.  Killen is designed as a strong but soft yarn suitable for knitting socks, with Mohair used alongside Bluefaced Leicester for strength.  This yarn is a soft, strong 4 ply (fingering weight) which takes dye beautifully.

Killen Sock: Bluefaced Leicester and Mohair Blend (80:20%) 320/100g 4 ply/fingering weight.  Spun in Scotland by The Border Mill

I first began thinking of making an all-natural sock yarn around 18 months ago and had a small test batch of Killen spun with summer 2017’s fleeces. The Bluefaced Leicester came from a small show flock called Eilean Dubh (gaelic for Black Isle) owned by a school friend of my eldest. Unfortunately later that summer the Eilean Dubh flock had to be disbanded as the Laughton family were struggling to secure rental grazing. For 2018’s larger batch I worked with two new-to-me local flocks, Wester Raddery and Craigallan – I aim to build a long-term relationship with both farms and to continue selecting and buying high quality fleece from their beautiful flocks. Killen is a small rural hamlet in the centre of the Black Isle and lies more-or-less centrally between these three flocks, hence the name of the yarn.

Sourcing Mohair hasn’t been straightforward. I started, in 2017, with fleece from a flock local to The Border Mill (who spins Killen so skilfully) but unfortunately the fleeces had skin flakes and couldn’t be processed. Luckily TBM had some British Mohair leftover from a previous project and that was used in the test batch. I worked hard to track down traceable Mohair for summer 2018 and was delighted to find a flock in the Lake District from which I bought the fleeces needed for the second batch………..but unfortunately it transpired that these fleeces were contaminated with a resin which couldn’t be washed off! Having searched pretty thoroughly earlier in the year I knew I was very unlikely to find any other British Mohair fleece so I decided to use South African Mohair in order to be sure of the quality of the yarn.

I was absolutely delighted when Clare Devine (Knit Share Love) agreed to design a pair of socks in Killen for me.  Clare is a very talented sock designer and is quite a champion of all natural socks.  There’s some great information on her website: here and here. Clare’s Munlochy Socks are absolutely stunning – you can read more about them here.  Thank you Clare!

The Rhidorroch Hat is a beautiful new pattern designed in my Coulmore yarn (Organic First Clip Cheviot) by Emily K Williams.  The hat is named after Rhidorroch which is the west coast farm that partners Coulmore, here on the Black Isle.  Rhidorroch is where their flock of North Country Cheviots spend the summer before coming over to the more gentle east coast for the winter.

The hat is gently slouchy, with a generous pom pom on top, and uses slipped stitches  to add definition and texture to the stripes.

I dyed 30g mini skeins of Coulmore for the sample hat in indigo, indigo and annatto and, indigo and heather (the pattern uses one mini skein of natural white of too).  From time to time I’ll have kits (with just the right amount of yarn in four shades -30g x 4) available in my shop and when I attend shows.  I’m always happy to put together a custom kit so please do contact me if you are interested but don’t see a set available in the shop at present.  (mail@blackisleyarns.co.uk)

Kate, the Production Manager from The Border Mill, very kindly took some photos of this year’s Grey Heather Shetland DK being spun.  I thought you might like to see some of the many skilled steps that go into processing such beautiful yarn.

Clockwise from top left, the photos show:  1. three different component colours ready to card, 2. dark grey going into the carder 3. three different component colours as slivers going into the draw frame, 4. two resulting slivers going through the draw frame again, 5. stripy sliver ready for spinning, 6. finished single on the bobbin, 7. singles being plied together, 8. finished plied yarn on the bobbin, and, centre. finished yarn in the skein!

I’m really pleased to be able to share the latest Black Isle Yarns design.  The Erradale Shawl is a beautiful design by my friend Emily Williams – which is rather appropriate since she found the flock who grew the wool for the lovely Coulmore yarn (see this post for more information)!

erradale shawl undyed coulmore 4 ply

To quote from the pattern:

”Brioche lace suggests the foamy sand patterns left behind when the tide goes out, as rhythmic and soothing as the receding waves. Erradale is a deceptively simple knit, equally eye-catching in one or two colours.

Black Isle Yarn’s first-clip Coulmore 4-ply is a natural part of the Inverness landscape, from sheep that live just round the corner from me. It’s the perfect choice for a warm shawl with body and bounce, and shows the brioche off beautifully.”

Erradale Shawl by Flutterbyknits in Black Isle Yarns Coulmore 4ply

Erradale uses two skeins of Coulmore 4ply and can be knit with two undyed skeins, as per Emily’s original, or one skein each of two different shades.  I think either version is stunning.  The shawl is a simple brioche design starting from the narrow tip and increasing to the brioche lace at the end.  It is a good introductory brioche pattern – if, like me, you’re new to brioche then Emily highly recommends Nancy Marchant’s turtorials.

erradale shawl by Emily Williams in natural coulmore black isle yarns

I’m really looking forward to seeing lots of Erradale Shawls out in the wild in the future!  I’ll have a shop update on Saturday 31st March focusing on Coulmore 4 ply, with individual skeins of undyed yarn and kits with two naturally dyed shades, one of each of the two used in the dyed version (beautifully sample knit for me by Clare Shaw.  Clare is another lovely knitting friend and a superb, and very fast, knitter!).  The photo below shows a close-up of the two shades, the top is dyed with indigo over heather flowers and the bottom is indigo alone.  I love the effect of the two together – I think of them as peacock colours but I have heard someone else suggest stormy seas.

cof

I first heard of Coulmore about a year ago when I had an excited phone call from my friend Emily – she was just back from a bike ride, with a group of cycling friends from her son’s school.  While cycling along the shore near North Kessock they’d had to stop for a flock of Cheviots being moved along the road.  Emily started chatting to Maddie, the shepherdess, and discovered the sheep were part of an organic flock on a family run farm with land here on the Black Isle and also on the west coast near Ullapool.  Their land supports Maddie and her husband Neil, plus their daughters and families – Iona at Rhidorroch on the west and Bella at Coulmore here on the east.  They have been organic for many years (wth their barley going into Bruichladdich’s ‘The Organic’ whisky!) and the fleece from their Cheviots fetches even less from the Wool Board than normal, not organic, Cheviot.  Even allowing that the family do the clipping themselves, mostly Maddie in fact, they get very little return for their flock’s fleece.

Coulmore Organic Cheviots

All of this was established before Emily shot off to catch up with her bike ride!  I subsequently contacted Maddie and had a fantastic visit, meeting her and Bella, last spring.  They were keen for me to try having some of their fleece spun, not just because I would pay them a good rate for the wool, but because they really want to see all products from their land being well-used and, if possible, with added value.  I bought some of their hogg clip last summer – a ‘hogg’ being a ewe lamb which is being kept on the farm to be bred from the following year.  I wanted to keep the organic status of the wool and consequently had it spun at The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall.

Coulmore Cheviot Ewes and Lambs

The wool was beautifully worsted spun by The Natural Fibre Company at two weights – DK (220m/100g) and 4ply (350m/100g).  I am incredibly happy with how this yarn has turned out, it definitely proves wrong the popular belief that Cheviot wool is only good for carpets.  It is a lovely strong wool but with a soft smooth handle and very good stitch definittion – ideal for lace designs and cables, and suited to anything from shawls to jumpers.

Coulmore Organic Cheviot First Clip 4ply sm

Coulmore Cheviot 4ply Organic First Clip sm

I am delighted to say that there is a full review coming, later in March, from Louise Scollay of Knit British, the wonderful champion of British wool – but some of the feedback I have had so far (from Louise herself, one of her testers Gem Davis {Gem has given me permission to use her swatch photo below} and Sarah Berry {who has designed the Comely Bank jumper in Coulmore DK, also see below} includes:

‘is really quite buttery and the stitch definition is lovely’
‘it was absolutely gorgeous, a yarn to be proud of and I think everyone will love it’
‘really enjoying knitting with your beautiful springy wool, it shows the stitch patterns off to perfection’

coulmore swatch by Gem Davis sm

There will be two designs to support Coulmore.  Emily Williams (very fittingly since she enabled the yarn in the first place!) has designed a striking shawl, with two skeins of the 4ply weight. The shawl can be knit as one colour or two.  Emily’s shawl will be released later this week and I’ll have patterns, and yarn of course, available at EYF.  The photo below shows a sneak peek of the two colour version which Clare Shaw beautifully knit up for me.  I have dyed up several more sets of yarn in these two shades – indigo and indigo over heather – for kits at EYF.

cof

Sarah Berry has designed a cropped jumper with fitted ribbed sleeves and a top-down circular yoke in the DK weight.  I can vouch for how pretty, comfortable and flattering it is to wear………..I’d be wearing it just now if I didn’t feel I ought to keep it pristine for at least a little longer!  Sarah has only recently finished her design and will have it test knit before releasing the pattern in the next few weeks (I’ll be sure to let you know once it is ready) but has kindly allowed me to share this selfie with you and an image of her original design notes and test swatch.

Comely Bank Selfie sm

comely bank swatch and design concept sm